Senate explores limits to schools’ use of restraints, seclusion

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (July 12, 2012)

— Violently restraining and secluding problematic students in small, inescapable areas actually increases assaults and behavior problems, experts on Thursday told a Senate committee that is considering legislation to curtail the practice.

Many schools rely on seclusion and restraint to control students with behavior problems, especially minorities and those with disabilities, according to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

During the 2009-10 school year, there were almost 39,000 restraint incidents, Harkin said, citing Department of Education statistics. He singled out an incident in December when a 9-year-old autistic boy from Kentucky was restrained.

“(He) was stuffed in a duffel bag by school personnel and secluded from his classmates,” Harkin said. “He wasn’t discovered until his own mother came to school and found him in the bag.”

Daniel Crimmins, director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, testified that these methods have no “educational or therapeutic value,” worsen behavioral problems and increase self-harm and suicides.

Cyndi Pitonyak, coordinator of positive behavioral interventions and supports in Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, agreed.

“We tell ourselves we have to engage in these restrictive things that hurt children because they are necessary for a positive result,” Pitonyak said. “But we are not getting a positive result.”

In April, Corey Foster, a 16-year-old boy from Yonkers, N.Y., who had learning disabilities, died as officials at his residential treatment center tried to get him off a basketball court.

“I was told Corey made his last shot and it accidentally hit the employee,” his mother, Sheila Foster, said after the hearing. She said her son was held face down and restrained. He died from cardiac arrest while being restrained, Harkin said.

“These schools are supposed to be there to equip them with the necessary means of coping and helping – not killing them,” Foster said.

Some schools are designing alternative methods to deal with problematic students. For instance, Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa., redesigned its behavioral system more than a decade ago, closing its “time out” rooms as part of the change. As a result, truancy and suspensions both dropped dramatically, said Michael George, the school’s director.

Deborah Jackson, the mother of a child diagnosed with several behavioral disorders, said her son’s experience at Centennial School “changed his life.” She said some of the school’s most successful strategies include helping students develop problem-solving skills and using positive incentives for good behavior.

Pitonyak said the key is to form “individualized, positive behavior support plans” like those she’s developed in Montgomery County. These involve working with small support teams that focus on preventing problems before they occur.

Next year, Harkin said, he hopes to amend two existing laws and work with the Department of Education on the issue. He has introduced legislation into the Senate – a companion bill has also been introduced in the House – that would limit the use of seclusion and restraint and give states the means to develop positive, preventative behavioral supports.

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